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U.S. Solar Industry Posts Best Quarter Ever

Judging by the headlines, the American solar industry is going through some rocky times. The Solyndra bankruptcy, the solar trade complaint filed against China and the pending expiration of a wildly popular grant program continue to provided fodder for an increasingly politicized discussion.

Perhaps lost in all of this is that a whole lot of people are quietly putting up a whole lot of solar. According to new data presented Wednesday by GTM Research, the third quarter of 2011 was easily the best ever for American installers.

There were 449 megawatts (MW) of grid-connected PV installed in the third quarter alone, putting the cumulative yearly total above 1 gigawatt (GW) for the first time. And that’s with the fourth quarter, traditionally the quarter with the most activity, yet to come. By the time 2011 is over, there could be 1.7 GW of new PV in the U.S. Perhaps most striking was that the third-quarter numbers were 140 percent higher than the third quarter figures from 2010.

Digging Deeper

The residential market grew by a healthy 21 percent over the third quarter of 2010. The utility sector, meanwhile jumped 325 percent year-over-year. The commercial sector, meanwhile fell 24 percent during the quarter.

The sharp growth in utility installations included 23 projects totalling 200 MW that were connected during the third quarter. (No concentrating solar power and concentrating photovoltaics projects came online during the quarter.) More than 500 MW of utility PV is currently under construction in the U.S., with expected completion dates later this year and into 2012.

The rise in the residential market comes after two down quarters. California saw its residential installations grow from 23 MW in the second quarter to 33 MW in the third quarter.

The commercial market’s 24 percent drop is attributed to simultaneous difficulties in the four largest markets — California, Arizona, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A rush to "safe harbor" projects so that they can qualify for the 1603 grant will likely lead to a surge over the first half of the year. However, New Jersey and Pennsylvania show little prospect for recovery in 2012.  

Very Real Factors

The American solar industry faces two scenarios that could severely dampen prospects, at least in the short term.

Panel prices have fallen 40 percent in 2011, and this drop has helped drive the American market. But it isn’t coming without a potential cost. SolarWorld in October filed a trade complaint against China alleging that the country is unfairly subsidizing companies in its country, and that those panel makers are illegally dumping their products into the American market. An investigation is underway, and a ruling could come within the next month. Many industry executives are fearful that a prohibitive tax placed on lower-cost Chinese panels would derail the industry as it gains momentum.

A companion to the installation boom has been the Section 1603 Treasury Department grant, a financial tool that is credited with helping to finance tens of thousands of projects across several renewable industries. The grant, which was extended at the last minute in 2010, is set to expire on Dec. 31.

Very few analysts, however, see the extension of the 1603 grant as a plausible scenario given the extremely short timetable, the political makeup of the House and the polarizing effect of Solyndra.

The Solar Energy Industries Association continues to lead the charge, though, to urge lawmakers to extend the program for another year. The grant, developed during the height of the 2008 economic crisis and set in motion in early 2009, allows developers to receive 30 percent of the project’s cost after completion rather than waiting for a 30 percent tax credit, which doesn’t expire until 2016. The thinking goes that since the economy is still struggling to gain traction, there remain very few investors with an appetite for tax equity. The grant, however, allows these projects to go forward.

According to a letter sent Nov. 30 to leaders in the House and Senate and signed by 764 businesses and trade groups, the 1603 program has supported 22,000 projects in all 50 states and has helped spur nearly $23 billion in private investment. A report released by SEIA in October projected an extension would help add 37,000 jobs — 18,000 directly in the solar industry and 19,000 in industries affected by industry growth.

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